Good Albums I Didn’t Review in October 2019

Since my output is limited to one review a week, there are obviously a lot of albums I listen to that never get reviewed. Some of those are quite good and I don’t want them to go unnoticed. So what I will try to do is put together a list of albums every month that I think are worth your attention. As these are all “Good” albums, they would receive a minimum score of 3.5 if I gave them a full review. Without further ado, here are some good albums I didn’t review in October 2019:

Polyvinyl

ANAMANAGUCHI – [USA] — After delaying the release of this album and then releasing a video game, (probably) the most well-known chiptune band have finally given us their third album. And it’s chock full of fast and dense chiptuney goodness. They have their thing and they do it well.

4AD

BIG THIEF – TWO HANDS — According to most other reviewers and publications, I have my Big Thief albums backwards. I actually prefer Two Hands to U.F.O.F. from earlier this year. I think the more focused and simplified compositions make for a better overall album.

Perpetual Novice

CAROLINE POLACHEK – PANGPang is Caroline Polachek’s first solo album released under her own name and her first release since the breakup of her previous band, Chairlift. This is a solid collection of synth-pop tunes with personal and emotional lyrics. Overall it’s just a solid album of well assembled songs.

Sub Pop

CLIPPING. – THERE EXISTED AN ADDICTION TO BLOOD — The experimental and industrial hip-hop powerhouse give us their take on horrorcore, fittingly released around the Halloween season. Rapper Daveed Diggs describes scenes of horror in rapid flows over the group’s atypical and noisy tracks. It’s a challenging but rewarding listen… if you can stomach it.

Late August

CODY JINKS – AFTER THE FIRE — Cody Jinks actually released two albums in October, on week apart from each other. Both are good, but I think After the Fire is the better of the two. Jinks is one of the best in the new generation of outlaw country artists. Last year’s Lifers was one of my favorites and he’s continuing his streak.

RCA

JIMMY EAT WORLD – SURVIVING — Jimmy Eat World got back on my radar after the surprisingly solid Integrity Blues came out in 2016. Surviving continues this trend with a fun and honestly pretty good collection of alt rock tracks. They’ve really found a way to survive in our post-emo world.

Reprise

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE – COLORADO — Neil Young has no reason to keep making music this good, but he does because he can. Now, this isn’t some groundbreaking work of rock and roll, but it’s better than you’d expect from an artist this late in their career. Crazy Horse are pretty tight on this album too.

Solid State

NORMA JEAN – ALL HAIL — Norma Jean is not only one of the few bands from the peak of “Christian Hardcore” that are still around, they’ve been incredibly consistent over all that time in terms of quality. All Hail is the latest offering of their unique brand of brutality and it does not disappoint.

Young God

SWANS – LEAVING MEANING. — It’s a Swans album, so it’s long and it gets weird. This one might not be as loud or oppressive as the ones that came before it, but it’s still impressive. What’s most impressive, and a sign of Michael Gira’s genius is how something so stark can hold your attention for over 90 minutes. Even the more repetitive tracks come across more hypnotic than annoying.

dBpm

WILCO – ODE TO JOY –This new Wilco album is actually a pretty quiet affair. A lot of the instrumentation is drawn back to further emphasize the lyrics, which are some of the best they’ve written in awhile. Glimmers of hope peek through the seemingly bleak current events that are covered.

Is JESUS IS KING Kanye’s SLOW TRAIN COMING?

This past weekend, Kanye West finally deemed his latest album fit for the ears of the general public. The not-so-subtly titled JESUS IS KING is Kanye’s first album after he professed a radical conversion to Christianity, features heavy gospel music influences, contains no foul language, and is even categorized as a Christian hip-hop album. Kanye isn’t the first musical artist to pivot so suddenly and completely to religious music, but he’s certainly one of the most prominent figures in American music to do so in recent years. And I can’t help but compare it to a similar conversion that happened 40 years ago.

In August of 1979 Bob Dylan released Slow Train Coming, the first album of what would come to be known as Dylan’s “Christian Era.” 17 years and 18 albums into his recording career, Dylan had established and re-established himself as one of the greatest songwriters in American history and indisputably as a key figure in American music. Slow Train Coming came after contact with the Vineyard Movement and a conversion to evangelical Christianity. The lyrics featured strong references to Dylan’s newfound faith and Christian philosophy. Obviously these sudden changes were polarizing and while the reception was mixed, reviews of the album were generally positive, citing Dylan’s conviction on the subject and its cohesiveness. Robert Christgau even said at the time that it was his best release since Blood on the Tracks.

At the start of this era Dylan stopped performing his previous secular material in favor of his new Christian songs. He would evangelize from the stage, especially when heckled, and there are even accounts of Dylan attempting to evangelize to producer Jerry Wexler during the recording of Slow Train Coming. This era brought another Christian album in 1980’s Saved, which was met with less critical acclaim. The final Christian release was 1981’s Shot of Love that contained a mixture of Christian and secular songs. This and the reintroduction of songs from the ’60s in live performances signaled Dylan’s movement away from a strictly religious approach to his music. 1983’s Infidels marked the official end of this period as it contained all secular material. In the years that followed, there have been hints here and there that Dylan hasn’t completely abandoned religion or at least a belief in God, but he hasn’t released any strictly Christian music.

Over the past 15 years Kanye West has proven to be one of the most talented, if not controversial figures in hip-hop music. Not only has he released genre-defining albums, but he’s proven that he’s not content to sit back on a formula that works and is willing to challenge himself and his fans. This has led to a variety of albums with varying quality, but there’s always been a sense that it was the album that Kanye wanted to make at that time. That sense is still present with JESUS IS KING. In fact, Kanye was so convicted about this album, that the previously announced Yandhi album was shelved or scrapped so JESUS IS KING could be made instead. So now I ask the question, is JESUS IS KING Kanye’s Slow Train Coming? Does this album mark the beginning of Kanye’s “Christian Era?”

The similarities between the two actually go beyond just the sudden pivot to more religious content. Kanye has spent the majority of 2019 holding “Sunday Services” where he performs covers of gospel songs and modified, gospel themed versions of his own material. He said in an interview that he almost quit making rap music because it’s “the devil’s music.” And there’s even claims that he requested that people involved in the production of JESUS IS KING who were not married abstain from sex during the course of the production. So here again we have a radical devotion to a newfound faith.

But when you bring the final product into the comparison, similarities begin to come fewer and farther between. The critical reception of JESUS IS KING has been mixed at best. It currently sits at a 48 on Metacritic (at the time of writing), which puts it in the lowest five scores for the year so far. The production is uneven with evidence of Kanye’s constant meddling throughout. And where Dylan was convicted in his new faith and shared the Gospel as he understood it, Kanye is more using his Christianity as a vehicle to call out his naysayers. One can only hope that if we get more albums out of this Christian era, that they increase in quality and content rather than decrease like they did with Dylan.

Kanye also has a history of being incredibly impulsive. That coupled with the uncertainty of the future makes the longevity of this Christian period a big, fat question mark. We have no way of knowing if Kanye is in this for the long haul or if this will just be a short detour like Dylan’s. And if I’m honest, I don’t think Kanye really knows either. What I do know is that, regardless of your opinions of it, religion can be a very helpful thing for some people. Kanye West is clearly a man with a lot of personal demons. I think we can endure some disappointing music if that’s the price we have to pay for someone to become a happier and healthier person. Personally, I’d like to see another attempt at a gospel rap album, one that’s more focused and thought out. I believe that Kanye certainly has the ability to create a great album in that style. But we won’t know until his next album gets announced and then delayed… and delayed again.

THIRD EYE BLIND – SCREAMER album review

THIRD EYE BLIND – SCREAMER

Mega Collider, 2019

Alternative/Pop rock

Do I really need to tell you who Third Eye Blind are? You know, the “Semi-Charmed Life” guys? The “Jumper” guys? Really? Alright fine. Third Eye Blind are an alternative rock band that formed in the ’90s and hit the world with a one-two-three punch of top 10 singles on their 1997 self-titled debut. Two of those singles were the ones I mentioned before. The third was “How’s It Going to Be.” They quickly followed up with the 1999 album Blue that, in some regards, was an improvement over their debut, but it was not as successful. And their popularity continued to decline from there despite remaining active and releasing new music semi-regularly.

Screamer is the band’s sixth album, and the first after frontman Stephan Jenkins announced that the band wouldn’t be releasing anymore full-length albums. So do what you want with that. Prior to release, Jenkins kept referring to the album under the working title Summer Gods and said it would be an EP with experimentation in other genres, including trap music. Mercifully, what we got is something more cohesive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And they didn’t completely abandon the promise of trap music.

The album actually starts out pretty strong. It opens with the title track (featuring Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells), and while it fits in with modern alternative pop rock trends, it’s still on-brand for Third Eye Blind and noisy enough to keep your attention. Following that you have perhaps the best song on the album, “The Kids Are Coming (To Take You Down).” It’s a high energy guitar rock song with lyrics of protest and the hope of the future generations. It’s the closest thing on this album to the spirit of old school Third Eye Blind.

After this you get “Ways” and “Tropic Scorpio.” The former would be a mostly forgettable track if the lyrics didn’t creep into cringey territory. The latter is the only other point where they get close to the sound and feel of their peak, but it’s another case where the lyrics bring it down a few notches. Unfortunately things start to rapidly decline after this. The worst offenders are “Walk Like Kings,” “Got so High,” and “2X Tigers.”

As I mentioned before, they didn’t completely abandon the promise of trap music, and “2X Tigers” is the track that delivers on that promise. The result is a wandering, auto-tuned mess with a sparse beat and the whole thing feels out of place. Similarly, while “Walk Like Kings” is presented in an alternative pop rock sound, the lyrics wouldn’t be out of place in a modern trap song with lines about “motherfuckers fucking with my flow,” a G550, and “living the lux life.” “Got so High” has a pre-chorus that just repeats the word sugar over a dozen times as the tempo gets slower for the chorus, and the rest of the lyrics don’t make much sense either.

The rest of the songs aren’t really terrible, just mostly forgettable pop rock. The only one that really stands out with some level of lyrical depth is “Light It Up,” which seems to be about the fond memories of a friend who has passed.

Overall, it feels like Third Eye Blind and blink-182 are suffering from the same affliction. Both of these bands appealed to a specific demographic at their peaks and they’re desperately trying to appeal to the same demographic of this generation despite being 20 year veterans of the music industry. Screamer has a couple songs that will get the attention of older fans, but the rest feels like mediocre or just plain poor attempts at being relevant in today’s musical landscape.

2.0/5.0

BABYMETAL – METAL GALAXY album review

metal galaxy

BABYMETAL – METAL GALAXY

BABYMETAL/Amuse/5B, 2019

Kawaii metal

BABYMETAL is a Japanese group designed to combine the images and sounds of J-pop idol groups and heavy metal music. They are the first group to perform this specific brand of “kawaii metal” and have inspired the creation of similar groups in the Japanese music scene. Their popularity in the United States started as a viral novelty when a video of their song “Gimme Chocolate!!” was posted on YouTube. But it stuck around as the combination of J-pop song-craft and the heavy metal instrumentation ended up being pretty appealing to quite a few people.

Their stateside publicity grew when Rob Zombie showed his support for them in 2016, garnering some… less than encouraging responses from his fans. But Zombie doubled down, and if the guest list on this new album is anything to go by, he’s not the only big name in metal paying attention to them. The tracks on Metal Galaxy include guest appearances from members of Sabaton, Arch Enemy, and Polyphia among others. Does all this mean that BABYMETAL has moved on from their viral novelty and are now a group to be taken seriously? I’m not so sure.

Metal Galaxy is BABYMETAL’s third album, their first in three years, and the first without vocalist Yui Mizuno (known as Yuimetal in the group) who left the group in 2018, citing poor health. Other changes that come with this album are improved production, continuing the progress from their debut to 2016’s Metal Resistance, and a wider range of influences with songs drawing from Latin and Indian music among others. Unfortunately these new directions end up spreading the band’s already shallow depth of substance a little too thin.

 

The worst offenders are “Oh! MAJINAI,” which features Sabaton’s Joakim Brodén, and “PA PA YA!!” with Thai rapper F.HERO. The former is a folk metal tune about 45 seconds too long with an extended chorus of non-lyrical vocals from Bodén and an odd vocal from one of the girls in the second verse. “PA PA YA!!” feels like it’s too long due to highly repetitive chorus and a poor choice of where to use harsh vocals. Another attempt at international influence that works a little better is “Shanti Shanti Shanti” which has an Indian influence. And while it’s fun on the first few listens, it ends up coming across as a cheap and stereotypical imitation, not unlike any other metal band trying to introduce other influences, but not committing to a deep dive into the source material. 

Another weakness is the bizarre “IN THE NAME OF” which features the first instance of prominent harsh vocals on the album, but it’s in the form of nearly unintelligible, low, guttural chants along almost a march of heavy guitars. There’s also “Kagerou” that hits pretty much all the beats of an alternative metal radio rock song, a la Breaking Benjamin. Then “Shine” is nearly six minutes of more somber J-pop that happens to have heavy guitars in it. The sentiment of the song is nice, but it overstays its welcome. Finally, the intro track “FUTURE METAL” just seems like a 2 minute afterthought that teases something akin to Sleigh Bells, but nothing else on the album sounds like it.

The album isn’t without its highlights, though. “Brand New Day” with Tim Henson and Scott LePage of Polyphia offers a brilliant combination of the two groups sounds, with Henson and LePage bringing some refreshing complexity to the table. The Latin influenced “Night Night Burn!” brings in mariachi and flamenco influence, and at times sounds like a metal version of the theme from Neon Genesis Evangelion. “Distortion” with Arch Enemy’s Alissa White-Gluz and “Starlight” return the band to the whiplash inducing juxtaposition of J-pop and metal that put them on everyone’s radar.

The remaining songs aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just not really all that special. “DA DA DANCE” and “Elevator Girl” are more examples of just blending J-pop and metal rather than creatively placing the genres opposite each other. The latter is presented in an English language version on the U.S. release of the album, and I almost wish it wasn’t. You really don’t gain anything from knowing what they’re singing. Finally, the album’s closer, “Arkadia,” is just blistering fast power metal in the style of DragonForce, and not a particularly noteworthy example of it.

At the end of the day, everyone knows that BABYMETAL aren’t critical darlings. We shouldn’t expect too much of them. And honestly, I’m impressed to see some attempts at growth on Metal Galaxy. There seems to be a conscious move towards broader influence and more cohesive song structure. The band and their producers know that the gimmick can’t sustain them forever. Unfortunately these attempts led to some disappointing tracks and a couple moments of cringe. 

2.5/5.0

KING CALAWAY is a Country Boy Band

Photo: Alex Ferrari

Last week when I went to the New Releases page on Spotify to find the new albums and potential review candidates, I saw this release from a band called King Calaway. The album was called Rivers and the cover didn’t tell me much about the genre. At the bottom of the album’s page, I saw that the group appears on curated country playlists. Okay, they’re country. I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, how bad can a country “band” be?

I didn’t get around to listening to the new album until after I had already written the review for that week (which was Nick Cave’s excellent Ghosteen). When I did, confusion is probably the best way to describe how I felt about what I was hearing. So I did a little digging and what I found was interesting to say the least. As it turns out, King Calaway is essentially a boy band in the classic NSYNC or Backstreet Boys sense with a country twist.

There’s surprisingly little information about the band, but what’s available essentially confirms that the band was put together by an industry executive and Nashville producer Robert Deaton. They say their goal was to focus on musicianship rather than vocal harmony like boy bands of the past. And on paper, the idea makes sense with Nashville being full of talented musicians. But you have to question what they’re really focusing on when you learn that Deaton’s son is in the group.

Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Things don’t get much better when you listen to the music itself. The whole album is full of songs that sound like some California producer’s idea of country music when he’s never been east of the Mississippi. It’s all pretty soulless, squeaky clean, and boring, and their cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” doesn’t help. It’s all pretty clearly the product of some musical industrial complex.

Now, discovering that Nashville has manufactured a boy band really isn’t all that surprising. I have no doubt that “The Industry” has had it’s fingers in the development of more than one country music sensation in the past. But usually those groups or individuals have some history of schlepping in the bar scene, songwriting, or even internet spheres like Soundcloud or YouTube. What’s really surprising is, as far as I can tell, King Calaway is the first time that they’ve tried to build a group from scratch. When you consider the rise and fall of boy bands in the ’90s and ’00s, and especially the rise of pop country, you have to wonder why it took them so long.

Personally, I don’t think this experiment is going to go very well unless King Calaway is given better songs to record. But considering the things that do get famous in the world of country music, I could be wrong. Only time will tell.

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN album review

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN

Ghosteen Ltd./Bad Seed Ltd., 2019

Alternative rock/Ambient

I really could not have asked for a better year to start reviewing music. Several artists have put out their best work so far, others have released comeback albums (some good, some bad), others still have released very impressive debuts, I’ve even had the delightful pleasure of ripping a few albums to shreds. And now, in addition to all that, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds release a new album. What a time to be alive.

Nick Cave is an Australian singer and songwriter who has been active for over 40 years. He started in a noisy garage rock band that eventually became the post-punk band The Birthday Party. After this band broke up in the mid-’80s, he formed the Bad Seeds, a band whose approach to Gothic rock is more Flannery O’Connor than Siouxsie Sioux. He has a penchant for writing 7 minute songs with graphic lyrics about love, death, and God, and he’s one of the most revered lyricists in rock music. Cave is an artist for fans who value songwriting. He’s almost universally loved by music nerds, similar to other songwriters like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.

Ghosteen is the seventeenth studio album released by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and I’m honestly a little nervous to be reviewing it. I’ve joked on social media that I feel like my reputation as a music nerd and reviewer is on the line. Cave’s music is often met with critical acclaim, and before I ever had a chance to listen to Ghosteen, five publications had given it a perfect score. If I’m perfectly honest, I wasn’t very familiar with Cave’s music going into this. I always had a respect for it and knew a handful of songs, but never did a deep dive into the discography or any single album. So this review has a bit more research behind it than others.

Cave says that Ghosteen completes a trilogy started with 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, but it pairs better stylistically with the latter. Cave’s teenage son tragically died while Skeleton Tree was being recorded, and many view the album’s stark, ambient, and experimental backing and its more abstract and poetic lyrics as reactionary and a catharsis for Cave in the wake of the tragedy. Ghosteen has similarly sparse and ambient instrumentals and poetic lyrics, but dissonance and the raw pain of loss are replaced with hope and beauty.

Long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis works with Cave to craft ambient soundscapes with analog synthesizers at their foundation. These are frequently more inviting than those on Skeleton Tree, but no less somber. At times they even sound spacey, like the soundtrack to a sci-fi film from the ’70s. Little more makes up the instrumentals of this album; piano appears on several tracks and there’s an occasional flourish of strings.

Lyrically, Ghosteen again continues in a similar vein to Skeleton Tree. Where the majority of Cave’s lyrics in the past were more narrative, focusing on characters and the dark situations that develop them, his recent output has been comparatively more abstract, striking at an emotion rather than a story. The theme of Ghosteen again is grief, but instead of the raw and visceral reaction in the moment of tragedy as heard on Skeleton Tree, these are the songs of someone who has had a few years to process that grief. Many of the lyrics have to do with coming to terms with the reality of what has happened (“Sun Forest,” “Ghosteen,” and “Hollywood”) or the support one seeks and needs from loved ones in these moments (“Waiting for You” and “Leviathan”). There’s even a track where it appears the spirit of Cave’s son is speaking with him, reminding him that he is still with him in some way (“Ghosteen Speaks”).

Truly, one of the great triumphs of Ghosteen is the title track that opens the second part of the double album. It’s a 12 minute epic that effortlessly moves between synth-laden ambiance, piano balladry, and occasional hints of prog. Cave’s allegorical lyrics take you on a journey through the pain and grief and eventual acceptance in the aftermath of a great loss. It’s a great distillation of the emotions and themes of the tracks that came before.

My only criticism is that in the first couple spins of this album, the tracks “Ghosteen Speaks” and “Leviathan,” the closing moments of the first part, seemed weak in comparison to the rest of the album with the former’s ghostly wails and the latter’s repetitive refrain. However, further listening and analysis revealed the purpose for these decisions and the songs began to make more sense in the context of the album as a whole.

Scoring this album has been exceedingly difficult. On one hand, understanding the context and doing a proper deep dive into the album and its lyrics is very rewarding. It offers a beautiful and poignant expression of loss and grief in a way that only Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds can provide, and the experience is enhanced when it’s paired with Skeleton Tree. However not every listener is going to do the work required to see that. Despite all its beauty and craftsmanship, Ghosteen is not necessarily accessible or a joyful listen, and that might put some listeners off. There’s also no denying that, while it makes sense in the context of the album, “Leviathan” is the weakest track. None of this changes my opinion that Ghosteen is probably the closest thing to a perfect album that I’ve heard this year.

4.5/5.0